Appalachian Dancing - Matthew Olwell
Matthew Olwell is a great exponent of the Appalachian percussive dance and we are thrilled that he is one of the performers taking part in Anam.
Whether you choose to call it flatfooting, clogging, or buck dancing, this leisurely, rhythmic group of dance forms are closely associated with the Appalachian Mountains of North America where they are still popular today. As is the case in Ireland, dancing has long been a way for groups of people to come together and socialise. All of the events of significance to a community - including deaths, marriages, anniversaries,holidays, and changing seasons - centered around gatherings which featured live music and dancing.
As early as the 18th Century, immigrants from Ireland and Europe were bringing their music and dances to Appalachia. From a combination of European, West African, African-
American and Native American Indian traditions, a new group of dances centered around percussive foot vocabulary were born, identified by a wide variety of terms including jig or clog dancing, buck dancing, and breakdown. Fiddle and banjo were often used to accompany a dancer. The banjo, which evolved from stringed instruments of West African descent (especially as played in the minstrel shows of the mid 19th century) had a formative influence on Appalachian music, and on the types of rhythms used by dancers. The gradual blending of Irish and European fiddle tunes with polyrhythms and melodies from West Africa gave birth to a wide swath of American music, including jazz, and what is now called Appalachian old time music. The dances followed suit, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, earlier dance forms had evolved into what we now call tap dance, clogging, flatfooting, and buckdancing.
As is the case in many vernacular dance forms, there is endless debate even among purveyors of these styles as to where the boundaries of the form lie. In general, flatfooting, and buckdancing are more improvisational, giving the dancer greater freedom to interpret the music according to his or her individual style.
Matthew’s dancing has been inspired by teachers from many forms, including Irish step dancer Donny Golden, The Fiddle Puppet Dancers (much of whos repertoire was anchored in Appalachian clogging), and tap dancer Jimmy Slyde, seen here dancing with George Benson:
During the folk revival of the 1970s and 80s, many Appalachian clogging teams, including The Greengrass Cloggers (several of whom went on to form The Fiddle Puppet dancers) drew inspiration from groups like the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers, seen here at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
Matthew brings this wonderful tradition and its unique rhythms to Anam – we’re delighted he’s part of it!